Tranmere are top of npower League One and still unbeaten. Nick Hilton looks at Rovers’ rise
CONSIDER for a moment the essentials of the most unlikely story the new football season has thrown up so far.
Tranmere Rovers, a club who have not won a promotion in more than 20 years and fought battles against relegation in the last three, stand four points clear at the top of the League One table with almost a quarter of the programme completed.
They are unbeaten in 11 games, eight of which were won, have scored 26 goals, conceded six and boast the division’s top three individual marksmen.
Their exciting progress is evoking memories of the last Tranmere team to climb the divisions. It is much too early to make direct comparisons of course but manager Ronnie Moore’s work in blending a group of individual talents and characters together remind you that he served nine years as assistant to Prenton Park’s master team builder Johnny King.
There are no players with big-name reputations in the current squad but Moore likes the way spirit, camaraderie and resolve are taking root in the dressing room.
“They are like the Wild Bunch,” Moore says of the group.
“We had that here years ago, in the late 1980s and early 90s, with the likes of Eric Nixon, Tony Thomas and John Morrissey. Now we have Andy Robinson, James Wallace and Ben Gibson, who are similar.
“When it comes down to a Saturday, that’s when the joking stops. We have a good bunch of lads who have met every challenge this season.
“Who knows how far they can take us? John King had some good players here and we certainly have good players here now.”
Tranmere’s flying start is forcing the bookmakers to shorten the odds against them climbing into the Championship next May.
Yet the whole remarkable enterprise is engineered on a shoestring. Rovers work with a budget for expenditure on players – covering transfer fees, wages and bonuses – that is quite possibly the smallest in the division.
Their investment in the entire squad this season adds up to no more than two months wages for one top paid player at Liverpool.
Whether you are inclined to regard Tranmere’s financial discipline as unambitious or prudent – the club have never lapsed into administration – they are demonstrating that at the game’s third tier level, it is possible for paupers to steal a march on princes.
So how are Tranmere confounding the form book and the supremacy of spending power in the professional game?
There is no straightforward answer to the question but many of the clues lead back to the manager and his work in reshaping the playing squad at Prenton Park during the summer.
Moore pulled diverse elements into the melting pot to produce a team that packs a heavier punch than the sum of its parts.
Before looking for new recruits at the end of last season, Moore and his staff decided they would make every effort to re-sign Andy Robinson and James Wallace, star performers in the side inherited from Les Parry last March.
Then he set about introducing the element in the side that can trump so many others at League One level – pace. Striker Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro and wide men Joe Thompson and Abdulai Bell-Baggie are very quick. So too is left-back Zoumana Bakayogo, who was already under contract. Liam Palmer and Jake Cassidy, recruited on loans that run until early January, are no slouches.
As a consequence, Tranmere have the potential to turn defence into attack at a speed many opponents struggle to cope with.
A number of individuals in the side have been playing some of the best football of their careers this season, feeding off each other and building confidence.
There is nothing radical about the tactics – 4-4-2 with a dash of adventure – but the fine tuning is shrewdly done. The input of coach John McMahon, manager of the Liverpool reserves team under Rafa Benitez, should not be underestimated.
Tranmere have also had some good fortune sitting on their shoulders, as Moore readily acknowledges.
If Rovers’ form over the first two months of the season has been nothing less than a rocket ride with Ronnie, then Moore’s own career is back on the rise after a patch of turbulence.
The 59-year-old from Huyton was out of football for 11 months before returning to Prenton Park in March.
His dismissals from two previous jobs, at Tranmere in 2009 and Rotherham United in 2011, subsequently looked like misjudgements on the part of the chairmen who wielded the axe.
Even so, Moore offered his services to Tranmere on a non-contract basis last March when previous manager Les Parry departed on the back of a grim run of results.
He quickly turned those results around by liberating players from their anxieties as much as changing team tactics. He signed a one-year deal in the summer.
Robinson said: “When the gaffer came in towards the end of last season he installed a bit of belief in us, which we needed.
“We kicked on from that. It is partly down to the gaffer and also down to the staff and the players who wear the shirt. The manager is doing very well.
“I think we will have to sign him on for another couple of years and get him tied down.”
Moore is as engagingly open, off-the-cuff and un-PC as he ever was. He is also open to new ideas and was prepared to revise the habits of 25 years in coaching and management when he returned to Rovers.
He confesses that while out of work for 11 months, he thought about making a change to the way he prepares his teams for matches.
“I’ve changed, there’s no doubt about that,” Moore said. “We don’t talk too much these days about the opposition because you can frighten the life out of your own players by giving them too much information. I have learned. It is all about us now, about what we can do.”
He reckoned last Saturday’s 1-0 win at big spending Notts County to be the “most complete” performance of the season so far, even though the winning margin was more slender than many other victories that went before.
He said: “Notts County are a big club, with 30 players in the squad and a massive budget compared to ours. We should not be winning games at places like that. But I don’t think our goalkeeper had a difficult save to make all afternoon and on another day we might have scored three of four goals.
“That’s how well we’re playing. I can’t ask for anything more from these players. They are honest and giving it everything.”
Moore does not like to talk about the prospect of promotion as freely as some of the younger players in his squad, preferring to argue that Tranmere’s season will hang on how quickly they reach the 50-point safety mark. They are already half-way there.
Over the course of a full season Tranmere will not be able to escape the disadvantage of having a small squad with limited cover.
They should find it harder than the wealthier clubs to replace influential players when injuries and suspensions strike.
Rovers lost two of the leading goalscorers, Robinson and Akpa Akpro last week and carried on winning. Robinson may have shaken off his hamstring injury within another week or 10 days but Akpa Akpro faces three months on the sidelines with a foot injury and Moore is hoping to persuade Johnson to release funds for a loan signing.
“I love being back in the game,” Moore said.
“I personally don’t think I should have been out of it in the first place. Now I’m back and hopefully proving to people that they were wrong.
“Perhaps some people will look at the results and may be a little embarrassed about it, which is nice for me.”